Tarik did not answer immediately, his face expressionless, almost bored. At last, he said, “Prince Ahmet, I am not depraved enough to imagine the conspiracy you accuse me of.”

Ahmet took a step back though his tone remained level and affable. “What have I done to earn such contempt from the Janissary Corps? What has my brother done for you that I have not?”

Tarik hesitated, then said: “May I speak freely?”

Ahmet spread his hands. “You’d better, I think.”

Tarik faced him. “You are weak, Ahmet. Pensive in times of war and restless in times of peace. You lack passion for the traditions of the ghazi—the Holy Warriors—and you speak of fraternity in the company of infidels.” He paused. “You would make a decent philosopher, Ahmet, but you will be a poor sultan.”

Ahmet’s face darkened. He snapped his fingers, and his own bodyguard came to attention behind him.

“You may show yourself out,” he told the Janissary captain, and his voice was like ice.

Ezio was still watching, as, a few minutes later, Ahmet himself swept out of the Divan. A moment later, Ezio was joined by Prince Suleiman.

“Quite a family, eh?” said the prince. “Don’t worry. I was listening, too.”

Ezio looked worried. “Your uncle lacks sway over the very men he will soon command. Why did he not cut that man down where he stood, for such insolence?”

“Tarik is a hard man,” replied the prince, spreading his hands. “Capable, but ambitious. And he admires my father greatly.”

“But he failed to safeguard this palace against a Byzantine attempt on your life in its inner sanctum! That alone is worthy of investigation.”

“Precisely.”

“So—where should we begin?”

Suleiman considered. Ezio watched him. An old head on very young shoulders, he thought, with renewed respect.

Suleiman said, “For now, we’ll keep an eye on Tarik and his Janissaries. They spend much of their free time in and around the Bazaar. Can you handle that—you and your . . . associates?” He phrased the last words delicately.

At the back of Ezio’s mind was the memory of Yusuf’s admonition not to get involved in Ottoman politics, but somehow his own quest and this power struggle looked connected. He made his decision.

“From now on, Prince Suleiman, none of them will purchase so much as a handkerchief without our knowledge.”

THIRTY-TWO

Having ensured that Yusuf and the Assassins of Constantinople were fully briefed in shadowing all movements of off-duty Janissaries in the Grand Bazaar, Ezio, accompanied by Azize, made his way down to the southern docks of the city to collect bomb-making materials from a list compiled for him by Piri Reis.

He had completed his purchases and dispatched them, with Azize, to the Assassins’ headquarters in the city, when he noticed Sofia in the crowd thronging the quays. She was talking to a man who looked as if he might be an Italian, a man of about his own age. As he drew closer, he not only saw that she was looking more than a little discomfited but recognized who she was talking to. Ezio was amused, but also not a little discomfited himself. The man’s unexpected appearance evoked a number of memories and a number of conflicting emotions.

Without revealing his presence, Ezio drew closer.

It was Duccio Dovizi. Decades earlier, Ezio had come close to breaking his right arm since Duccio had been two-timing Claudia, to whom he was engaged. The arm, Ezio noticed, still had a kink in it. Duccio himself had aged badly and looked haggard. But that clearly hadn’t cramped his style. He was evidently smitten by Sofia and was pestering her for attention.

“Mia cara,” he was saying to her, “the strings of Fate have drawn us together. Two Italians, lost and alone in the Orient. Do you not feel the magnetismo?”

Sofia, bored and annoyed, replied: “I feel many things, Messere—nausea, above all.”

With a sense of déjà vu, Ezio thought it was time to make his move. “Is this man bothering you, Sofia?” he asked, approaching.

Duccio, fuming at this interruption, turned to face the newcomer. “Excuse me, Messere, but the lady and I are—”

He trailed off as he recognized Ezio. “Ah! Il diavolo in person!” His left hand went involuntarily to his right arm. “Stay back!”

“Duccio, what a pleasure to see you again.”

Duccio didn’t reply but stumbled away, tripping over the cobblestones as he did so, and crying, “Run, buona donna! Run for your life!”

They watched him disappear along the jetty. There was an awkward pause.

“Who was that?”

“A dog,” Ezio told her. “He was engaged to my sister, many years ago.”

“And what happened?”

“His cazzo was engaged to six others.”

“You express yourself very candidly.” Sofia sounded mildly surprised by Ezio’s use of the word “dick” but not offended.

“Forgive me.” He paused for a moment, then asked: “What brings you to these docks?”

“I took a break from the shop to collect a package, but the customs people here claim that the ship’s papers are not in order. So, I wait.”

Ezio glanced around the well-guarded harbor, getting a sense of its layout.

“It’s such a bother,” Sofia continued. “I could be here all day.”

“Let me see what I can do,” he said. “I know a few ways of bending the rules.”

“Do you now? Well, I must say I admire your bravado.”

“Leave it to me. I’ll meet you back at your shop.”

“Well then”—she rummaged in her bag—“here is the paperwork. The parcel is quite valuable. Please take care of it—if you manage to get it away from them.”

“I will.”

“Then—thank you.” She smiled at him and made her way back toward the city.

Ezio watched her go for a moment, then made his way to the large wooden building that held the customs offices. Inside, there was a long counter and, behind it, shelves containing a large number of packages and parcels. Near the front of one of the lower shelves closest to the counter he could see a wooden map tube with a label attached to it: SOFIA SARTOR.

“Perfetto,” he said to himself.

“May I help you,” said a portly official, coming up to him.

“Yes, if you please. I’ve come to collect that package over there.” He pointed.

The clerk looked across. “Well, I’m afraid that’s out of the question! All those parcels and packages have been impounded pending paperwork clearance.”

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